Jaisalmer's main attraction is its yellow sandstone fort, whose 9m (30-ft.) walls grow in a roughly triangular shape, springing from Trikuta (Triangular) Hill, on which it is built, and buttressed by 99 bastions. Within you will find a number of elaborately carved havelis overlooking the narrow streets, but the best examples of Jaisalmer's unique havelis are situated in the town below. Hordes of tourists end the afternoon by taking a trip out to Sam Dunes or Khuhri to watch the setting desert sun from the back of a camel; with a little planning, however, you can enjoy a totally unique dune-and-camel experience that will have you falling in love with the desert. If you're more sedentary, head for Saffron, the rooftop terrace at the Nachana Haveli, for a view of the fort, which starts to glow as the sky darkens; you'll also witness all manner of daily life on the town's rooftops.
Other attractions are Gadsisar Tank, excavated by the Maharaja Gadsi Singh in 1367, which has a few temples and a chhattri (cenotaph) overlooking it, but is principally worth visiting to access the nearby Folklore Museum. The private museum contains some interesting exhibits, particularly the handcrafted items (look for the mobile temple, and the depiction of the tragic love story of Princess Moomal and King Mahendra, which, incidentally, is told in detail on the Palace Museum audio tour). Exhibits are not well labeled, however; if the proprietor, Mr. Sharma, is not on hand, a guide could prove useful here. The small entrance fee is not always charged, but do leave a donation; hours are 8am to noon and 3 to 6pm daily. A shop at the end of the museum sells reasonably priced postcards (and overpriced books).
The best way to experience Jaisalmer's desert surrounds is on a camel safari, many of which include the following places of interest. Amar Sagar is a small settlement with a palace and a restored Jain temple built around the shores of a lake that lies 5km (3 miles) northwest of Jaisalmer. Barra Bagh, which lies 6km (3 3/4 miles) north of town, is a collection of old and recent cenotaphs to Jaisalmer's Rajput rulers, set paradoxically between two wind farms. Note the decrease in size of the recent structures (daily 6am -- 8pm Rs 50, cameras Rs 50). Another 10km (6 1/4 miles) north lies Lodurva, the capital of the Bhatti Rajputs from the 8th to 12th century, until it was devastated by Mohammed Ghori before Jaisalmer was built. The main attractions here are more restored Jain temples, with the usual fine carvings (daily 8am-6pm; Rs 20, camera Rs 50, video Rs 100). The entrance to Thar Desert National Park lies about an hour (45km/28 miles) from Jaisalmer, near Khuri. Wildlife you are likely to encounter include deer, desert fox, black buck, and the rare long-necked bird known as the Great Indian Bustard.
Tip: For the best views (and photographs) of the fort, the sprawling town below and the encroaching desert, make your way to Shuli Dungari on the northern side of the Fort. From here you can see the desert sun setting into the vast arid plains and have unencumbered views of the fort unspoiled by power lines and mobile network towers (which have been erected with scant regard for the towns profile) while the locals go about their business, kids fly kites and play on swings, and dinner is prepared.
Exploring the Golden Fort
Some 1,000 people still live in the tiny village inside Sonar Killa, or Golden Fort, which has twisting lanes so narrow they can be blocked by a single cow (be warned that these animals know that they have the right of way, so step aside, and watch their waste products too). Exploring the fort is easily done in a morning -- you access the fort through Gopa Chowk, ascending the battle-scarred ramparts to enter the main courtyard, overlooked by seven-story Raja Mahal, or Maharaja's Palace, which now operates as the Fort Palace Museum & Heritage Centre (tel. 02992/25-2981). Thanks to a brilliant audioguide tour, the palace has become one of the most alluring tourist attractions in the state, packed with information that not only brings to life the history of this unique place, but waxes vividly about the aristocrats who built and frequently defended it. It also does an excellent job of shedding light on intriguing aspects of regional culture. Set aside around 2 hours for the tour; admission is Rs 250 and includes the audioguide as well as still camera use (video is Rs 150)
After the palace, the other great reason to visit the fort is to check out the panoramas of the city below and the distant desert vistas (although a number of exquisite bird's-eye views are afforded throughout the palace tour) from various perspectives. There are a number of interesting vantage points (a few are specifically marked), but do be aware that buskers may try to take advantage of you by starting up a tune and then insisting on a donation. Search for the many strategic cannon points which are peppered around the periphery or head straight for the pretty Jain temples, which lie west (just ask for directions) The best among these (Rishabnath and Sambhavnath) are open only to non-Jains after 11am. Entry is Rs 30 and you'll pay Rs 50 to take a camera in, double that for video. No leather is allowed within the temple, and menstruating women are restricted from entering. Constructed between the 14th and 16th centuries, these temples are typical of Jain craftsmanship, with every wall and pillar as well as the ceiling covered with the most intricate relief carvings, and large statues representing the Jain tirthankaras, or "Enlightened Ones" -- note that you cannot enter the caged sanctuaries in which these sculptures sit, or touch or photograph them. A small library has a collection of rare manuscripts, books, and miniature paintings. Take a breather at Toap Khana (Place of Cannon) for the views, then head north, turning right at some stage to find Laxminath Temple (again, just ask). Although the Jain temples are worth a visit to see the intricacy of the carvings, it is the Hindu temple that pulsates with energy, particularly if you get here when worshipers chant their bhajans, devotional songs (about 10:30am and at several other times during the day; check with your hotel). From here it's a short walk back to the main courtyard.
(Note that cars are not allowed to drive up or down the fort, so you'll need to use an auto-rickshaw or simply take the pleasant walk up its winding cobblestone streets.)
The Jaisalmer Havelis
Haveli refers to a traditional, ornate Rajasthani "mansion," with one or more internal courtyards. Steps lead up to an ornate door through which you enter a central courtyard, around which the family apartments are arranged. The facades of the Jaisalmer havelis, built as elsewhere by the town's wealthy merchants, are unsurpassed for the delicacy of their relief carvings, filigreed windows, and lacelike screens and jarokhas (small projecting balconies). A testament to the softness of the sandstone but even more to the skill of the silavats, Jaisalmer's community of stonemasons, these beautiful facades, some of which date back more than 300 years, have been perfectly preserved, thanks largely to the hot, dry climate. You will find them dotted all over town, but the most impressive are Patwon ki Haveli, Salim Singh ki Haveli, and Nathmalji ki Haveli. Patwon ki Haveli (Rs 50) actually comprises five ornate houses built by the wealthy Patwon for his five sons between 1800 and 1860. The houses are connected from within (though some are privately owned and not open to the public) and have flat-topped roofs. Inside one of the houses is the Basant Art Emporium, where you can pick up truly exquisite handicrafts -- but certainly not at bargain prices -- collected by the owner from the desert tribes. Patwon ki Haveli is open daily between 10am and 5pm (8:30am-7pm in summer); admission is Rs 50 (cameras extra). South of this, near the fort entrance, is Salim Singh ki Haveli, built by a particularly mean-spirited and greedy prime minister who extorted the hell out of the Rajput's kings' subjects, and even squeezed the royal family by providing huge loans and then charging exorbitant interest rates. It was apparently once two stories higher, but legend has it that the Rajput king blew away the top floors in a fit of pique, and Salim Singh was later stabbed to death. It's not necessary that you enter, and it's not always open (though times advertised are 8am-6pm, up to 7pm in summer). You can't enter Nathmalji ki Haveli, but it's still worth swinging by to play "spot the difference" with the beautiful facade. The right and left wings look identical at first glance, but they were separately carved by two brothers -- the numerous tiny differences can take hours to discover (this is where a guide comes in handy!). It's on the road to Malka Pol (just ask for directions). Note that many of the havelis now house overpriced handicraft shops; you will have to bargain hard to get the prices down.
Buying a Sense of Place -- The beautiful carvings and latticework on the havelis are a source of pride and a show of wealth for the local owners and neighborhoods, as well as being tourist attractions in their own right. Some, however, find their way into modern hotels as stand-alone pieces in spare, cathedral-like lobbies hoping to import some heritage into their ill-designed structures. This is technically illegal but does occur and is likely to increase given the rise in local construction, demand for rooms and unique, authentic design attractions which cannot be easily or cost-efficiently replicated. If you spot some of these "relocations," have a polite word with the GM of the relevant hotel and ask about its provenance.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.